Tag: Biographies

May 2, 2014

Review | Defiant by Alvin Townley

Title: Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought For Them, and the One Who Never Returned

Author: Alvin Townley
Publication Date: February 2014
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source & Format: Publisher; hardcover
During the Vietnam War, hundreds of American prisoners-of-war faced years of brutal conditions and horrific torture at the hands of North Vietnamese guards and interrogators who ruthlessly plied them for military intelligence and propaganda. Determined to maintain their Code of Conduct, the POWs developed a powerful underground resistance. To quash it, their captors singled out its eleven leaders, Vietnam’s own “dirty dozen,” and banished them to an isolated jail that would become known as Alcatraz. None would leave its solitary cells and interrogation rooms unscathed; one would never return.

As these eleven men suffered in Hanoi, their wives at home launched an extraordinary campaign that would ultimately spark the nationwide POW/MIA movement. The members of these military families banded together and showed the courage not only to endure years of doubt about the fate of their husbands and fathers, but to bravely fight for their safe return. When the survivors of Alcatraz finally came home, one veteran would go on to receive the Medal of Honor, another would become a U.S. Senator, and a third still serves in the U.S. Congress.

A powerful story of survival and triumph, Alvin Townley’s Defiant will inspire anyone wondering how courage, faith, and brotherhood can endure even in the darkest of situations.



I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated for this review, nor has it in any way influenced my opinion. Promise!


THE STORY

In high school history classes, we were taught the basics of the Vietnam war. Defiant blows those lessons out of the water. 

Each soldier whose bracelet appears on the cover of the book plays a major role in the underground resistance the POWs employed to survive during their captivity. Townley makes these men memorable in his book by telling us their story: their journey to aviation (my personal favorite), their love lives, and their devotion to their country. It is rare to find such compassionate narration of nonfictional characters in a story, but Townley’s words make these men forever a part of my consciousness. His effort to paint an entire picture of each man makes each’s struggle through the POW captivity more poignant. 

Before deploying to Vietnam, each soldier learned a Code of Conduct, one that dictated how they react to their situation. I had never heard of this particular code before, so reading how it essentially shaped their lives was at once extraordinary and touching. They used the simple six guidelines to keep their spirits buoyed and their resistance strong. The strength of their camaraderie and support for each other touched me the most; fair warning, it’s impossible to get through this book without a serious case of the feels. 

THE NARRATION

The narration of Defiant was simple and direct; Townley addresses tough topics with a simplicity that underscores the emotions felt by these men, their families, friends and their countries. His simple diction and clarification of topics unfamiliar to non-military or history buffs make reading his book easy and are necessary for reading the harder scenes. 

The narration encompasses not only the POWs, but their families, friends and the world at large. This wide scope provides context and a basis for emotional reactions, but it doesn’t overcome the story of the men in captivity. Townley represents each man equally in the narration, setting up their personal stories before delving into the heart of the book. 

A warning to the soft-hearted folks (like me): Townley leaves no information out, and consequently, the torture scenes might be hard to read. I admire him for including everything; it accurately portrays the struggle of these men. 

THE VERDICT

Defiant is a must for military history buffs and nonfiction lovers. I would even go so far as to say that this book is a necessary read for us in order to fully understand what happened to these men. My worldview has changed drastically simply from this read. 

Posted May 2, 2014 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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April 7, 2014

Book Review | Zodiac by Robert Graysmith

Title: Zodiac
Author: Robert Graysmith 
Publication Date: April 1987
Publisher: Berkley Books

Source & Format: Owned; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Who was Zodiac? A serial killer who claimed 37 dead. A sexual sadist who taunted police with anonymous notes. A madman who was never apprehended. This is the first, complete account of Zodiac’s reign of terror. Is he still out there?


Here’s the thing: I’m a scaredy-cat. Horror movies freak me out so much that I can’t even watch the previews. I like mysteries and thrillers because there’s usually a conclusion, an ending of some sort that makes me feel like I don’t need to worry  about the bogeyman under the bed. When my dad passed me Zodiac, praising Graysmith’s work, I was a little apprehensive. 








THE NARRATOR

Graysmith was working as a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac murders began. He provides an interesting perspective, switching back and forth from a personal narration to a simple presentation of the facts and witnesses’ statements. He indulges in story-telling occasionally, but it allows for me as a reader to sink into the scene. I particularly liked the story-telling aspect in the beginning of the book because it really set the scene for the more straight-forward narration later on. Graysmith occasionally provides insights in the beginning of Zodiac, but it is later in the book where he becomes immersed in the case and his personal observations take over the narration. 

For the most part, Graysmith remains in the background. He focuses on the personality of Zodiac and his own drive to unmask the man. 

THE FACTS

The first half of the book presents the basic layout of the story, focusing on setting up the perspective of the man himself as well as the victims. I loved the addition of the letters and ciphers. I had only heard about these letters, but to read them in their entirety sent chills down my spine. 

The addition of the emotional and physical perspective of those involved made the whole story come alive. Graysmith’s story-telling skills, especially when recreating scenes, made these people feel alive and personal to me. 

THE STORY

All in all, this is an incredibly chilling book. The depiction of the Zodiac is terrifying, especially as the book continues. I loved the psychological perspectives and the glimpses into the police department to see how they were coping with the case. The psychological perspectives let me observe from an almost distant standpoint, making the crimes easier to read. It was the stories of the police themselves and the families that were affected that made this story come alive.

 THE VERDICT

Not for the fainthearted, but definitely a good book. Graysmith’s narration varies from bone–chilling to matter-of-fact. I liked the additions of Graysmith’s personal opinions and stories from his hunt to unmask the man, as well as the stories of those involved, especially the police. A great book for true crime lovers. 

Posted April 7, 2014 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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January 19, 2014

Review: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Title: The Astronaut Wives Club
Author: Lily Koppel {website}
Publication Date: June 2013
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Source & Format: Owned; hardcover 
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

As America’s Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons.

Annie Glenn, with her picture-perfect marriage, was the envy of the other wives; platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter was proclaimed JFK’s favorite; and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived on base with a secret. Together with the other wives they formed the Astronaut Wives Club, meeting regularly to provide support and friendship. Many became next-door neighbors and helped to raise each other’s children by day, while going to glam parties at night as the country raced to land a man on the Moon.

As their celebrity rose-and as divorce and tragic death began to touch their lives-they continued to rally together, and the wives have now been friends for more than fifty years. THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB tells the real story of the women who stood beside some of the biggest heroes in American history.



When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut because of the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 that my dad loves. Once I figured out that a) you had to be good at math and b) be shot up into space in a little tiny tiny  tube, that wasn’t going to happen. I’ve always loved the stories of space, from The Right Stuff to today’s Mars exploration. Lily Koppel’s nonfiction novel detailing the lives and loves of the first NASA space program, Mercury, was right up my alley.

THE CHARACTERS

Some of the names of the astronauts were familiar to me from the Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff (another staple in my parents’ household movie collection), but the wives I was a little unfamiliar with. I admired how Koppel gave a complete description of their personalities, focusing on their quirks, differences, and loves to make these women come alive for me. Koppel makes each woman come alive again in the glory of those Mercury days when the entire world was watching them. I particularly enjoyed Annie Glenn’s portion of the story; she seemed to be the most intriguing of all the women because her shyness combined with her steadfast devotion to her husband created a mystique about her. 

Koppel doesn’t sugarcoat the down and dirty, however. There is an instance early in the book where one particular astronaut enjoys the freedom away from his wife a little too much, and the entire Mercury party becomes involved. It created an atmosphere of history come alive; instead of telling me how fabulous these astronauts were, Koppel includes some of the more dirty details that were an openly-kept secret among the men. It painted a more accurate picture for me of each member of this extraordinary moment in American history.

THE HISTORY

The women, however, were really the focus of this novel. One of the more interesting aspects of their story was the restrictions and expectations that NASA set upon them. Since there had been nothing quite like this before in American history, NASA didn’t quite…handle this well. I had forgotten the reporter in Marilyn Lovell’s living room during the Apollo 13 flight, but I had no idea that NASA and Life magazine had made a contract for a ghostwriter to live with each of the wives. I couldn’t imagine the imposition of their privacy that these women put up with

On that note, I found Koppel’s portrayal of particular bureaucrats and politicians fascinating. Some of them were a complete surprise to me; others, well, it only fit what I have heard and read about them before. The portrayal of President Johnson (then Vice-President to JFK’s Camelot) was particularly striking and disappointing. 

My favorite part of The Astronaut Wives Club is reading how these women created the traditions and rituals that carried them through the stress and fear while holding a smile on their face (“proud, happy and thrilled!”). It was extraordinary to see their inner thoughts and how these traditions were created, especially later in the book when the astronauts began to take on more daring missions. 

THE WRITING

Koppel didn’t hold back in this novel. Her opinionated voice is there right from the first page. And I loved that. Many nonfiction books I’ve read in the past attempt to be so unbiased that they can feel dry and unfeeling. Koppel’s passion shines through and made me as excited as she was about this subject. She made each woman’s personality shine through, especially as they shifted through the different events that changed the world. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club is a fascinating history of the women who stood behind the men of the moon missions. Their little-known story and behind-the-scenes traditions were intriguing, fascinating, and one of the best books I’ve read this year. 

Posted January 19, 2014 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 2 Comments
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December 8, 2013

Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Title: Orange is the New Black
Author: Piper Kerman
Publication Date: December 2009
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Source: Library
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I opened this book. I had heard about the Netflix original show from one of my fellow interns this past summer, and I had seen it recommended on Instant Queue. I was a little apprehensive due to what I had heard happens in prisons…


Orange is the New Black was completely unexpected. 


Right away, I identified with Kerman’s character. She could be anyone – literally. She has the personality traits of my co-workers, my friends, my family. She is the typical everyday girl who got a bit of wanderlust after college and fell in with some bad people. In the first few chapters of the book, I admired her frankness and candor when it came to this particular topic. Piper left nothing uncovered, and in this, she endeared herself to me. 


The memoir itself is written wonderfully. Kerman writes well, with a honest thoughtfulness to her narration that makes the story come to life. The day-by-day interactions with the other inmates was thrilling to read, and her summaries about daily life in the prison – like the cafeteria food, her job hunt, the struggle to earn a GED – made the narration all the more vivid. 


I admire her way with characterization the most. Each inmate that Kerman interacts with in her memoir makes an impression, and even if she is never seen again in the book, these women stay with you. I was surprised by the overwhelming kindness shown among the inmates, and the memory of each of them makes Kerman’s descriptions come to life. 


Final Thoughts: By the end of the memoir, I’ve come to the conclusion that Kerman was and is in a very unique position. By the end of her time, Kerman knows she has a safe place to land and a fiancee and family who love her. Not all of the women in the prison had the same. Kerman is in the position to tell her tale and those of the women she knew. It is a unique and interesting memoir, one that sticks in the mind.

Posted December 8, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 2 Comments
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November 22, 2013

Review: The Death of a President by William Manchester

Title: The Death of a President
Author: William Raymond Manchester
Publication Date: 1967
Publisher: Harper & Row Publishers
Source & Format: Owned; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

The author of the bestsellers American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964 and The Last Lion offers a compelling account of President John F. Kennedy’s last six days–the only record authorized by the Kennedy family–written with remarkable detail and immediacy, and with an intimacy that is unparalleled in the literature.


My dad and I share a love of history, so occasionally he passes on a book for me to read. He passed on this “tome” (his words) to me last year. Don’t get me wrong – this book is amazing, but the size of it alone is a bit daunting. But he’s got a good eye, and this book lives up to its stellar reputation.


This 711 (pl page book spans six days. Think about that. That’s at least one hundred pages per day. Even thinking about that now, a few days since I finished the book, blows my mind. The immense amount of detail that describes the tragedy of President Kennedy’s death and the world’s reaction is astounding. It’s rarely dry, which is a feat that I find quite astounding. It’s a remarkable wordsmith that can keep an audience so focused on his narrative, especially when there are so many different actors and situations occurring in these few days.


Manchester’s set up of the tragedy really lends to this narrative. He makes sure that we, as readers, know the main players inside and out. I knew Jacqueline Kennedy’s mindset going into Dallas, I had a feeling about Kennedy’s hopes and dreams for America, and I knew what was going on in Oswald’s mind when he set out that morning. With all of the detail setting up the event that was ingrained into America’s history, it was impossible to not be attached, to not care, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen.


Like most Americans, I’ve seen the footage taken outside of the Texas School Book Depository fifty years ago today in Dallas, Texas. It always had the sheen of history, of the past for me. Reading the events in Manchester’s intense account lifted that blurriness, and I finally completely understood how everyone in America was affected by this tragedy. I really enjoyed reading how the different people in the heart of this event were affected by the different narratives. It made for a more complete picture, drawing the strongest comparison between JFK and LBJ. The additional focus and detail on the Johnson family was a good addition, for it made the most complete picture for me.


I didn’t think I would enjoy reading about how the Kennedy family dealt with this tragedy. I didn’t enjoy it, but it was fascinating. It was fascinating to read about all the different people who pitched in, in a million different ways, to help, to honor. It made me proud to be an American.


Final Thoughts: I would recommend this book to each and every history buff, even some who might just be merely curious about this portion in history. It is a long haul of a book, but it completely changed my perspective on this important event in our history. 

Posted November 22, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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October 12, 2013

Review: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell

Title: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
Author: Julie Powell 
Publication Date: September 2006
Source: Owned
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Nearing 30 and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job, Julie Powell reclaims her life by cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the span of one year. It’s a hysterical, inconceivable redemptive journey – life rediscovered through aspics, calves’ brains and crème brûlée. 


To be honest, I’m having a little trouble writing this review, and after some thought, I think it comes down to this: I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t hate it. 


Julie’s character is a little rough around the edges and she isn’t (in any way) afraid to show it. Her life is at a standstill, and her husband’s offhand suggestion that she start a blog brings a new life to it. She put me off at times: although I can’t imagine the stress she went through during their attempts to become pregnant, it was a little off-putting to read about her screaming at her husband, exasperated over an ingredient that wouldn’t incorporate right into the sauce. Other times, she was a paragon of cooking advice and worldly ways that I couldn’t believe it was the same narrator. Overall, I felt her character was a little bitter, more so in the end than the beginning. 


There were moments where I adored her character: when she and her husband are standing over a sauce with bated breath and she realizes…


“…Eric stood beside me. I was Tom Cruise hovering with a bead of sweat. I was Harrison Ford in a battered fedora, weighing a bag full of sand in my hands – and Eric understood. He was my partner. It occurred to me, as I beat my rebellious sauce into submission, that my husband was doing more than just enduring this crazy thing I’d gotten myself into, doing more than being supportive. I realized this was his Project, too. Eric wasn’t a cook, and like Isabel, he only cared about JC because I did. And yet, he had become part of this thing. There would be no Project without him, and he would not be the same without the Project. I felt so married, all of a sudden, and so happy” (page 175).

There’s another scene where her friend is having a horrible time with men and brings over a bottle of vodka to talk about it. Early afternoon, when the bottle is opened, Julie takes a look at the clock, considers, then what-the-hell and throws one back with her buddy. These moments in the novel were endearing and relatable. The rest of the time, I was reading for the food.

There isn’t a comparison between the book and the movie – I think trying to do so would detract from the special qualities of each. I loved the extra details of Julie’s life in the book, and the addition of Julia Child in the movie was spectacular. However, there really wasn’t a place in Julie’s memoir for Julia: this year was more about her learning than relating to Julia Child. 

Final Thoughts: I probably sound like I hated this book, but I promise I didn’t. Julie and I didn’t get along at times, but her journey is something we all can relate to. And, after reading her book, there is no way I’m trying to cook French food. 

Posted October 12, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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October 10, 2013

Review: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Author: Erik Larson (website)
Publication Date: May 2011
Source: Library
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble


The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
 
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
 
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming–yet wholly sinister–Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.



When Dodd accepts the phone call from President Roosevelt back in his study in Chicago, he has no idea what is about to unfold. His life, a somewhat peaceful farming/teaching life, is about to be put on standby so he can accept the honorable, yet seemingly unwanted position of American ambassador to Berlin. Dodd is very steady and set in his ways – he is simply a history professor who wants to finish his lifelong work – a complete Southern history called Old South – before he dies. Throughout the book (mostly in the beginning), Dodd emphasizes that writing and researching this passion is all he wants to do. I found this interesting, especially in comparison to how others treated him because of this dream. The State Department, not too keen on his new position regardless, only appears to sink deeper into loathing for him. The Berliners and German government don’t know quite what to do with this man in his plain suits and American car. His lack of decoration and selfishness (for lack of a better word) sets him apart in the worst way in his new host country. When making my notes for this review, I kept wondering if Dodd set himself up to fail by rejecting the expected living style of diplomats or if any man in his position would have been unsuccessful in his work due to the times.



I don’t mean to say that Dodd was unsuccessful as an American ambassador. In In the Garden, he does struggle against forces in his home country and the host, making it difficult for him to do his job well. It all depended on the circumstances.


One of those circumstances was his dear daughter Martha. Martha reminds me of the rebellious stage each child progresses through at some point in their life; unfortunately, hers appeared during her father’s term in Berlin. At first, I loved her free and vibrant ways – her descriptions of the parties and major characters in this point in history were fascinating. However, her partying became a little painful for me to read as she sank deeper into denial about the treatment of the German people by their government. She slowly learned what was actually going on, but she didn’t want to admit the truth. I found it an interesting metaphor about how many of the world saw the actions of the Germans and carefully turned a blind eye until it was thrust into their faces. 

The setting was lovely – I felt like Larson gave us just enough detail to image the world of 1933 Berlin without overload. The addition of photos (especially the one of Dodd at his ambassadorial desk) added a sense of poignancy. I loved the addition of excerpts from the letters and diaries of Martha and Dodd. Out of the whole family, these two were in the most interesting positions within Berlin society and their varying commentary on the events building up to World War II added a great deal of depth for me. Martha’s romances and parties were fascinating because it gave me glimpses of men and women I have only heard referenced on the History Channel or in my dad’s reference books. To see snatches of their personalities was fascinating. The minor plot details of this book were especially crucial. They painted a far more accurate image of the stresses Dodd faced or the hierarchy and public mood of the German government than we would have experienced otherwise. Without the many details (like the stresses Dodd faced from the State Department, or the disdain the Undersecretary held for him), I would have felt like I was missing a crucial component.

Final Thoughts: Larson’s work has ignited a fascination within me to learn more: more about this time and the events that shortly followed. In the Garden of Beasts is a strong, fascinating book detailing the short, tense time before Germany began World War II.

Posted October 10, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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September 29, 2013

Review: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

Title: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Author: A.J. Jacobs 
Publication Date: October 2007
Source: Owned
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

From the bestselling author of “The Know-It-All” comes a fascinating and timely exploration of religion and the Bible.Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. He vows to follow the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love his neighbor. But also to obey the hundreds of less publicized rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers.

The resulting spiritual journey is at once funny and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal and will make you see history’s most influential book with new eyes.

Jacobs’s quest transforms his life even more radically than the year spent reading the entire “Encyclopedia Britannica” for “The Know-It-All.” His beard grows so unruly that he is regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. He immerses himself in prayer, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and tells the absolute truth in all situations – much to his wife’s chagrin.

Throughout the book, Jacobs also embeds himself in a cross-section of communities that take the Bible literally. He tours a Kentucky-based creationist museum and sings hymns with Pennsylvania Amish. He dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and does Scripture study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He discovers ancient biblical wisdom of startling relevance. And he wrestles with seemingly archaic rules that baffle the twenty-first-century brain.Jacobs’s extraordinary undertaking yields unexpected epiphanies and challenges. A book that will charm readers both secular and religious, “The Year of Living Biblically” is part Cliff Notes to the Bible, part memoir, and part look into worlds unimaginable. Thou shalt not be able to put it down.


What would happen if one tried to live by the rules of the most famous book in the world? It might be even harder for a man who deems himself Jewish like “Olive Garden is Italian.” A.J. Jacobs brings an amazing memoir of his journey to comply with the rules of the Bible for one year. The book, The Year of Living Biblically has risen to among my favorites because of the simply-written narrative and the frank and occasionally self-deprecating analysis of his journey to spiritual enlightenment. 

Jacobs’ character remains the endearingly self-deprecating fellow I’ve become familiar with from his past books. In fact, he almost feels like a friend – he writes with that level of intimacy. I couldn’t believe some of the rules. Although I studied the Bible in private school (ten years ago), I had forgotten about some of the rules and stories. Some were fascinating, like writing a Bible verse on the threshold of the front door. Others were a little high on the ick factor, like the story of Lot and his daughters (if you’ve forgotten or are unfamiliar with it, Lady Wikipedia is available. It weirds me out to write out the story). Jacobs’ character undergoes multiple changes, some intentional (like his facial hair) and some unintentional (his position on spirituality). 

I loved the narrative tone in The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs’s admits that he feels at times he has an alter ego named Jacob. Jacob is the more religious/spiritually-inclined half of Jacobs. There were times in the text where I could see the egos warring with each other for dominance in the writing. It made for an interesting narrative.

I always considered myself at least somewhat knowledgeable of the Bible, but I had no idea about all the different branches of the Judeo-Christian branches. I loved how Jacobs explored each from the very liberal to the very conservative. Although I knew there were differing opinions when it came to the Bible, I had never consciously thought about the differences in their beliefs. Jacobs’ analysis of each allowed me entrance into their worlds, even if just for a moment.

The cover definitely attracted my attention. I really loved the extra photos Jacobs included in the book, especially the ones showing his facial hair progression over the year. I liked the addition of the details of his everyday life. Although it wouldn’t have been a complete experiment unless he examined how it affected his family and life, the little additions made his journey more familiar and fun to read. Otherwise I would have felt a little lost and confused muddling through all the rules and regulations. 

Final Thoughts: The Year of Living Biblically is a great memoir detailing one man’s journey to live by the Bible verbatium on the surface, and underneath, his journey to search out spirituality. The Year of Living Biblically was so much fun to read, and is definitely a reread! 

Posted September 29, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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August 23, 2013

Review: Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From by Richard Davenport-Hines

Title: Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From
Author: Richard Davenport-Hines 
Publication Date: March 2012
Source: Library
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
My Rating: Four Stars

Late in the night of April 14, 1912, the mighty Titanic, a passenger liner traveling from Southampton, England, to New York City, struck an iceberg four hundred miles south of Newfoundland. Its sinking over the next two and a half hours brought the ship—mythological in name and size—one hundred years of infamy.

Of the 2,240 people aboard the ship, 1,517 perished either by drowning or by freezing to death in the frigid North Atlantic waters. What followed the disaster was tantamount to a worldwide outpouring of grief: In New York, Paris, London, and other major cities, people lined the streets and crowded around the offices of the White Star Line, the Titanic’s shipping company, to inquire for news of their loved ones and for details about the lives of some of the famous people of their time.

While many accounts of the Titanic’s voyage focus on the technical or mechanical aspects of why the ship sank, Voyagers of the Titanic follows the stories of the men, women, and children whose lives intersected on the vessel’s fateful last day, covering the full range of first, second, and third class­—from plutocrats and captains of industry to cobblers and tailors looking for a better life in America.

Richard Davenport-Hines delves into the fascinating lives of those who ate, drank, reveled, dreamed, and died aboard the mythic ship: from John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest person on board, whose comportment that night was subject to speculation and gossip for years after the event, to Archibald Butt, the much-beloved military aide to Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, who died helping others into the Titanic’s few lifeboats. With magnificent prose, Voyagers of the Titanic also brings to life the untold stories of the ship’s middle and third classes—clergymen, teachers, hoteliers, engineers, shopkeepers, counter jumpers, and clerks—each of whom had a story that not only illuminates the fascinating ship but also the times in which it sailed. In addition, Davenport-Hines explores the fascinating politics behind the Titanic’s creation, which involved larger-than-life figures such as J. P. Morgan, the ship’s owner, and Lord Pirrie, the ship’s builder.

The memory of this tragedy still remains a part of the American psyche and Voyagers of the Titanic brings that clear night back to us with all of its drama and pathos.



The story of the Titanic isn’t a new one for most of the world. Thanks to James Cameron’s blockbuster, we know the story of the doomed ship. I have always been fascinated by the Titanic, and I tend to read whatever history book about it that I can get my hands on. I found Voyagers of the Titanic hiding on my library bookshelf. Jackpot!


I thoroughly enjoyed Davenport-Hines’ choice of narration. The tone and voice of the memoir was engaging and created images of life aboard this doomed ship easily. The author designates each class (first, second and third) to a different chapter, exploring within each different people whose lives were forever changed by the ship’s maiden voyage. Typically, those in the first class are named, but that might possibly be because their names are still somewhat known in today’s society. Davenport-Hines names not only Colonel Astor and Margaret Brown, but the third-class families who lost their lives aboard the ship. I loved how he attempted to delve into their minds, their cultures, their lives, especially with as little information we have about certain individuals. 


Personally, one of the hardest parts for me to read was about the ship’s crew. I feel that they are sometimes overshadowed by the grandeur of the first class; Davenport-Hines makes sure that they are portrayed as vividly as possible. 


Final Thoughts: I finished this memoir and sat in silence for a few minutes. Even though I have been reading this book for the past few days, it took a few moments to let the far reaches of this tragedy sink into me. The book itself was an incredibly intense, emotional read that delivered the facts with rapid-fire accuracy that still allowed the portrayal of these people to sink into my mind.

Posted August 23, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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June 23, 2013

Review: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

Title: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
Author: A.J. Jacobs
Publication Date: October 2005
Source: Owned
Links: GoodReads | Amazon 
My Rating: Five Stars

33,000 PAGES 44 MILLION WORDS

10 BILLION YEARS OF HISTORY

1 OBSESSED MAN

Part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), The Know-It-All chronicles NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs’s hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z.

To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education, A.J. Jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His wife, Julie, tells him it’s a waste of time, his friends believe he is losing his mind, and his father, a brilliant attorney who had once attempted the same feat and quit somewhere around Borneo, is encouraging but unconvinced.

With self-deprecating wit and a disarming frankness, The Know-It-All recounts the unexpected and comically disruptive effects Operation Encyclopedia has on every part of Jacobs’s life — from his newly minted marriage to his complicated relationship with his father and the rest of his charmingly eccentric New York family to his day job as an editor at Esquire. Jacobs’s project tests the outer limits of his stamina and forces him to explore the real meaning of intelligence as he endeavors to join Mensa, win a spot on Jeopardy!, and absorb 33,000 pages of learning. On his journey he stumbles upon some of the strangest, funniest, and most profound facts about every topic under the sun, all while battling fatigue, ridicule, and the paralyzing fear that attends his first real-life responsibility — the impending birth of his first child.

The Know-It-All is an ingenious, mightily entertaining memoir of one man’s intellect, neuroses, and obsessions, and a struggle between the all-consuming quest for factual knowledge and the undeniable gift of hard-won wisdom.



I don’t even know where to begin. 


I remember the Encyclopaedia Britannica from high school. Not many kids actually used it for reference, like intended; instead, it became a sneaky way to hide your cell-phone/iPod/whatever (my generation has a bit of a tech addition). I can’t imagine sitting down and actually reading the thing. Kudos.


Throughout The Know-It-All, Jacobs makes an extraordinary effort to keep the reader engaged with the random facts and tidbits he picks up, which I enjoyed. What made me laugh aloud was how undertaking this giant project affected his life. Personal favorite? When his wife begins to charge him a dollar for every irrelevant factoid he stuck into everyday conversation (smart woman). His interactions with his somewhat-smarmy brother-in-law Eric were fascinating, mostly because their constant attempts to one-up each other on the intelligence scale was an impossible dream (although their interactions on Jacobs’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire appearance changed their relationship, I doubt they will stop trying to discover the more interesting fact!). 

Final Thoughts: After reading Jacobs’s Operation Encyclopaedia, I don’t think I will undertake my own operation, but I will definitely be reading his again.

Posted June 23, 2013 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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